When a Boeing 737 Max 8 crashed off the coast of Indonesia in 2018, killing all 189 people on board, the Federal Aviation Administration allowed other Max planes to keep flying. Less than five months later, in early 2019, another Max 8 crashed in Ethiopia, killing 157 more people. Even then, days passed before the agency halted the planes from flying.
In early January, when a door panel blew out of a Boeing 737 Max 9 jet, the F.A.A. responded far more swiftly. Within a day, it had grounded scores of similar Max 9 planes.
“That is night and day compared to what happened in 2019,” said William J. McGee, a senior fellow for aviation and travel at the American Economic Liberties Project, a research and advocacy group.
The agency did not stop with the grounding. Last month, it said it would bar Boeing from increasing production of the 737 Max line until the company addressed quality control issues, a major blow to the plane maker’s ability to ramp up output as it tries to compete with its main rival, Airbus. The regulator also opened an investigation into Boeing’s compliance with safety standards and announced an audit of the Max 9 production line.
The F.A.A.’s handling of the latest Boeing crisis will come under the spotlight on Tuesday when the agency’s administrator, Mike Whitaker, testifies before a House subcommittee. Already, the door panel mishap has prompted another wave of questions from Congress about how the nation’s air safety regulator exercises its oversight role.
The agency has long relied on plane makers to conduct safety work on the government’s behalf, a practice that came under scrutiny after the Max 8 crashes and is now drawing attention once again. In the case of the incident with the Max 9, one possibility is that Boeing employees improperly reinstalled the door panel, known as a door plug, after it was opened at the plane maker’s factory in Renton, Wash. If a manufacturing lapse is found to have been at fault, the F.A.A. may face criticism over whether it sufficiently monitored Boeing’s production processes.
Regardless of how the problem with the jet came to be, the F.A.A.’s fast and aggressive response once the door plug blew out in midair was unusual for the agency. Considered the most influential aviation regulator in the world, it has been called the “tombstone” agency over the years for not taking action to address potential safety issues until people had died. But over the past few weeks, Mr. Whitaker has made clear that the F.A.A. intends to take a hard line with Boeing, a manufacturing giant with a vast economic footprint.
“As Administrator Whitaker has said, this can’t be back to business as usual for Boeing,” Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said in a statement. “The F.A.A. and Department of Transportation are serious about reassessing every aspect of oversight, with all options on the table to make sure these problems are fully addressed.”
The F.A.A. declined to make Mr. Whitaker available for an interview, but in a statement last month, he called Boeing’s quality assurance issues “unacceptable.” The agency allowed the grounded Max 9 planes to return to the skies in late January after they were inspected.
Even before the harrowing episode with the Max 9 jet, the Biden administration was already under scrutiny for its stewardship of the country’s air travel system. A meltdown by Southwest Airlines around Christmas in 2022 caused widespread travel disruptions, and an F.A.A. system outage the next month forced flights to be grounded nationwide. In addition, a series of near collisions at U.S. airports prompted new concerns about safety.
Mr. Whitaker, who served as the No. 2 official at the F.A.A. during the Obama administration, took the helm in October. He was a little over two months into his job when the incident with the door plug occurred on Jan. 5 shortly after Alaska Airlines Flight 1282 took off from Portland, Ore. While the plane landed safely and no one was seriously injured, the incident could have been far more serious had it occurred while at cruising altitude.
The episode left the F.A.A. in a familiar position: dealing with a crisis involving the 737 Max, Boeing’s best-selling jet.
Mark Lindquist, a lawyer for the families of victims of the Max 8 crashes who is now representing passengers on the Alaska Airlines flight, said the F.A.A.’s decision to immediately ground similar Max 9 planes made sense given the backlash the agency faced after the previous deadly crashes.
“It seemed almost like the F.A.A. was almost jumping at this opportunity to prove that they weren’t just a tombstone agency and that they weren’t in bed with Boeing and they were going to prove that change by grounding this aircraft even though nobody died,” Mr. Lindquist said.
After the crashes in 2018 and 2019, which were caused in part by flight control software that pushed each plane’s nose down, the F.A.A. came under sharp criticism over how it monitored Boeing and the authority it gave the company to vouch for the safety of its own planes.
A report by House Democrats concluded that the regulator had “failed in its oversight of Boeing and its certification” of the 737 Max, and Congress passed legislation intended to improve the aircraft certification process and strengthen the F.A.A.’s oversight of plane manufacturers.
While the mishap with the Max 9 has been a major black eye for Boeing, drawing into question its quality control practices, it has also renewed scrutiny of how the F.A.A. ensures that newly manufactured aircraft are safe to fly.
The jet that lost the door plug had just entered service in November. Before that, the F.A.A. inspected the plane and found three deficiencies, which Boeing addressed before the regulator gave its sign-off for the plane to operate, according to the agency. The inspection was earlier reported by The Washington Post.
The F.A.A. did not provide details about the deficiencies, and the agency would not say whether the inspection should have turned up any problems with the door plug had it been installed improperly.
Members of Congress have been scrutinizing the F.A.A.’s oversight of Boeing after the door plug incident. In advance of Mr. Whitaker’s testimony on Tuesday, House lawmakers sent him a letter asking him to be prepared to answer a series of questions about Boeing and the agency’s monitoring of aircraft production.
In her own letter last month, Senator Maria Cantwell, Democrat of Washington and the chairwoman of the Commerce Committee, asked the F.A.A. for records related to the agency’s oversight of Boeing and Spirit AeroSystems, the supplier that made the door plug.
Ms. Cantwell wrote that early last year, she had asked the F.A.A. to conduct a special audit examining Boeing’s production systems. The agency’s acting leader at the time responded that such an audit was not necessary.
“In short, it appears that F.A.A.’s oversight processes have not been effective in ensuring that Boeing produces airplanes that are in condition for safe operation, as required by law and by F.A.A. regulations,” Ms. Cantwell said in a statement last month.
The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the door plug mishap. Jennifer Homendy, the board’s chairwoman, said last month that the F.A.A.’s actions would be examined as part of the inquiry.
It remains to be seen whether the latest 737 Max crisis results in lasting changes to how the F.A.A. oversees Boeing’s production of new planes.
One step the agency could take is to reclaim some safety work that is currently delegated to employees at Boeing. In a statement last month, Mr. Whitaker said it was “time to re-examine the delegation of authority and assess any associated safety risks.” He added that the agency was looking into using an independent third party to oversee inspections conducted by Boeing.
During a news briefing on Monday, Jodi Baker, an F.A.A. safety official, said the agency wanted to revamp its oversight work to include what she described as more on-the-ground “surveillance” of aircraft manufacturing.
But the F.A.A. does not have unlimited resources. Taking responsibility for safety tasks currently handled by Boeing employees could come at a significant cost to the agency, which already struggles to persuade Congress to give it the funding it needs.
“The implication is that regulators can wave a magic wand and solve the issues,” said David M. Primo, a professor at the University of Rochester who has studied airline crashes and their effects on policy. “I’m not sure that’s realistic in this case.”
Santul Nerkar contributed reporting from New York.